je suis cecil

pig cratesSocial media outrage can reach such a pitch that mainstream media pick up the story. This is what has happened with the story of another trophy hunter, someone who paid more than twice the average salary in the UK to go and hunt a lion, kill him, skin him and behead him. I imagine it is not easy hunting a lion, but the skill of this is surely diminished since this lion was baited, i.e. tempted into an area that would make him an easy target. Male lions are majestic creatures and this lion bore a human-given name as he was a familiar inhabitant of a National Park in Zimbabwe and one of the subjects of an Oxford University research project.

A similar wave of outrage swept through social media in April this year at the offensive photographs trophy hunters publish on social media sites. Typically they stand or squat victorious over their prey, shiny weapons and shiny smiles on display. At the time, I made reference to the Tory government’s push to repeal the Hunting Act in the UK which would legalise once more the hunting of foxes with packs of hounds and their retinue of scarlet and black coated hunters on thundering horses. All this under the guise of ‘vermin’ control while video footage circulates strongly suggesting foxes are being bred for hunting, as well as showing fox baiting activities.

A commonplace fox does not have the stature of a lion so the outrage does not swell globally, but swell it does because there is something in the human ‘spirit’ that is outraged by cruelty to animals. When you look into the eyes of another animal an un-namebale connection is made. It is not dissimilar to the connection we make through eye contact with each other, something arrests us in that moment as we share the magnitude and intimacy of actually being alive, awake and aware.

Interestingly, somewhere along the line, the animals raised for eating are removed from our view, we not only never look them in the eye, we rarely see them in the fields around us. The food on display in the supermarket is called meat not animal, and there is no imagery on the packaging that relates the body parts to a whole creature, like the ones we remember from our childhood picture books. This is because these animals are usually bred and raised in huge, huge numbers in factory farms, living short and tortuous lives, the sight of which is somehow deemed unfit for human consumption. (Aside: in certain US states it is now illegal to take photographs or make video footage of the conditions inside factory farms as these firms are “private”, and whistle-blowers will face prosecution.)

I am utterly convinced, however, that the vast majority of humans would not be able to bear witness, not be able to hold eye contact with any of these animals, without it touching their hearts and minds, without it impacting the way they choose to eat and live. It might not be an overnight sweeping change, perhaps like me it is a one day at a time effort, even a one meal at a time effort, but collectively we make a big difference to the animals and to the wider environment affected by these farming methods. This is why I chose the title for this piece: je suis Cecil, with all due respect to those affected by the events in Paris in January of this year, to name a connectedness and shared responsibility to all living things however majestic, however commonplace.

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Image via farmsnotfactories.org, shows pig crates. About only 1/4 of pork produced and eaten in the UK comes from outdoor farms. Nearly 70% is imported from farms outside the UK with standards not permitted in the UK.

Yulin

cow loveI had never heard of this place, Yulin, until a couple of months ago. I believe, translated it means Jade Forest. It is a city in the north west province of China once associated with coal mining and now with fracking for natural shale gas. What it seems to be most famous for however is a summer solstice tradition for eating dog (and cat) meat that has kicked off a flurry of aggrieved and shocked petitions all over the internet. Tradition seems to be a rather generous term since, in all the articles I have read, it appears to have begun in about 2009/10.

Issues arising from the widespread publicity about the festival are largely around animal cruetly and slaughter, animal theft and smuggling, and public health issues for although you cannot contract rabies from eating dog, you can from handling infected animals, and approximately 10,000 dogs are traded to support the festivities. China has the second highest incidence of rabies in humans in the world, according to the WHO.

I have signed all the petitions. I live with a dog. I am part of a culture that on the whole is dog-loving (I leave aside the horrors of illegal dog fighting, and fox hunting – how far removed is a fox from a dog as a species anyway?) but I am curious about the horrified feelings of my co-petitioners, because while the suffering and slaughter of 10,000 companion animals is a staggering amount it is a small number when the number of farmed animals slaugherterd in the UK alone is considered. These are the latest figures I could lay my hands on, they don’t account for the thousands of deaths on farms due to disease, accidents, transportation or neglect.

“In 2013, more than 989.6 million farmed animals were slaughtered for meat in the UK, according to official figures. Of these, 2.6 million were cattle, 10.3 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep, 17.5 million turkeys and nearly 945 million chickens.”

That is a lot of animals.

This has all left me a bit bewildered about the consensus view of farmed animals and companion animals, for there is something intriguing about the way our minds have been conditioned to find it OK to treat one member of species with love and affection and another member of a species as OK to eat for dinner.  And going back to foxes and internet petitions, intrigued I am again about how the UK government would react if there was a worldwide push from Chinese animal acitvistst against the proposed repeal of the Hunting Act. Now that’s something to think about over my sweet potato pancakes this morning.

Guardian article November 2014, concerning unreported farm animal deaths

Guardian article March 2015, concerning Tory government backing for repeal of Hunting Act

treading lightly

hands painted as planet earthSometimes you get more than you bargained for. In January, I started this enquiry about switching from veggie to vegan in response to my growing awareness of the scale of industrialised methods in dairy and poultry farming. I gave myself a get out clause in that if I wasn’t able to manage my nutrition well, there were ethically run dairies and egg producers that I could support, but four months on, several books later, and a collection of browser bookmarks too numerous to count, the key learning is about the interconnectedness of my habits and choices.

At the same time as researching nutritional requirements and reestablishing the cooking habit after months of coping with family illnesses and bereavement, I added a few vegan FB page likes, subscribed to blogs and twitter feeds, and headed to the bookshop to replace my cookbooks and gather some associated reading. This for the most part has been a blessing as fellow vegans point me to their tried and trusted recipes, to stories about successful animal sanctuaries, and to answers to questions like, where do you get your protein? However, the other part of opening up the window on veganism is an exposure to the unadorned and brutal facts and practices of livestock farming from gender selection to slaughter, information that has driven me to tears of horror, disbelief and despair on several occasions.

Over and beyond the farming and welfare issues, I have learnt about the knock on effects of the contemporary globalised western diet with its links to poor public health; to pollution and degradation of localised water supplies and soil; to the blanket use of antibiotics in animal feed with its potential connection to untreatable superbugs; and to the concept of BigAg that along with other supersized lobby groups shapes global trade agreements that seek to ride roughshod over sovereign and local interests. The final connection that is gradually coming into focus is between large scale livestock farming and climate change. I can put my hand up now and say that I had not spent anytime in recent years contemplating in any depth the matter of climate change. I know that at home we take more showers than baths, only fill the kettle so far, have changed our lightbulbs, etc but the imperatives of climate change had been lost on me. Of course it is much more complex than farming and lightbulbs, after all there are vast sums of money spent on denying the climate change scenario. Only time will tell who is right, but looking through the vegan window is helping me shape a strategic vision for my household where we tread as lightly as possible on this little blue ball that revolves around the sun.

Image Source via thethoughtvox.com

easter eating

0404 whiteface dartmoor ewe and lamb I was going to resist writing about small animals, but I can’t. This is the time of year when the concept of rebirth and renewal is apparently celebrated, although I think for the vast majority of secular folk it is just a long weekend with the chance to create a bigger than usual Sunday lunch for family and friends, and of course to offer chocolate eggs. If there are children around then egg painting and egg hunts are popular and there might be a visit to a farm to see the lambs. This is where I start to feel edgy because I am not sure at what point the disconnect happens between adorable wooly creature and a slice of roasted quadraceps muscle with gravy and veg, and with 11,000 tonnes of lamb eaten last Easter (according to the NSA) the disconnect, if I can call it that, is pretty significant.

On the face of it sheep seem to have a better deal than most industrially reared animals. There are about 22 million sheep in the UK (where are they?) and many are left to roam fields, graze freely (with some additional feed), and raise their young for at least a few months, unlike the fate of calves when separation occurs after the first feed of the mother’s collostrum milk. If she/he is not slaughtered in infancy then a sheep can probably expect to live for about 4-5 years of it’s natural lifespan which is 15 years.

Survival for breeding ewes depends solely on their ability to continue producing lambs either by natural exposure to a ram or through hormonal manipulation and artificial insemination. The latter is especially used in order to have lamb available for Easter butchering since if natural cycles were followed the lambs would not be ready for culling until the summer. And it isn’t just ewes who are sexually manipulated, “teaser” rams who have had a vasectomy or “wethers”, testosterone treated castrated rams (a procedure like tail docking using a rubber band a few days after birth), are used to stimulate the ovulation cycle in unsuspecting ewes.

For me, this whole vegan exercise comes down to thinking before eating, thinking before shopping, thinking about the bigger picture. Just on the lamb issue alone, there are further considerations beyond breeding methods like conditions for live transportation and slaughter techniques. And, I haven’t even got on to the wool industry and the bonkers and barbaric desire for day-old or fetal, yes fetal, pelts of karakul sheep. The only problem with the vegan exercise is the more you clear the fog from the window the more you probably don’t want to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

spades and shovels

stop eating animals signMore and more I dislike the word “meat” it depersonalises the fact that the body parts film-wrapped in styrofoam trays on the supermarket shelves, or the processed moosh that is shaped, dipped in batter and called a “nugget” ever walked on four legs or flapped a pair of wings. Although, to be honest, many of those factory farmed animals whose body parts are sold neither had the room to walk about on their hoofs or trotters, nor to flap a scrawny set of feathers in the sunshine anyway. Meat is a euphemism, a comfortably innocuous word that disconnects us from the reality of eating animals. I have to agree with Orwell, G. Mr again (see earlier post on farming doublethink) who said: “political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful, murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

This is all front of mind for me at the moment as there is a social awareness programme running in Australia and the UK called #meatfreeweek urging people to take up a dietary challenge and at the same time inform themselves about the staggering number of animals being raised in food slavery and the associated harmful health and environmental impact surrounding the western (now global) obsession with eating them. All fantastic, but with only a smidgen more self awareness we could stop calling a spade a shovel and just name the connection between animals and the plate honestly. How might this change the way we  think and act? I know it is probably a marketing nighmare but why not #stopeatingsanimalsthisweekplease?

 

Image source: funnypicutres.picphotots.net

dog consciousness

scruffy dogFor 10 years I have shared my house with a dog. I wouldn’t be without her. We don’t speak the same language or have the same toilet habits but we get along. We understand each other to a certain extent having learnt various sounds, mutterings and shouts from our respective vocabularies. We know each other’s given name. And, if we were both abandoned on a desert island and the last coconut had been eaten, I would not slaughter her and roast her on a spit. That is certain. At some fundamental level of being we are equals. When I look into her eyes, I see consciousness looking back at me, not something other called an animal, or a derivative called a dog. Three questions arise for me to dwell upon:

  1. How is it that we (human animals) unconsciously agreed to discriminate against selected species so that it is OK to raise and eat cow, pig, chicken etc, but not dog, cat, hamster or horse? (My field of reference here is the UK, I know other nations eat other non-human animal species).
  2. How do other dog, cat, hamster or horse owners stack up their dietary choices to eat other non-human animals?
  3. Am I harmfully exploiting a species, namely dog, by keeping it as a pet, and using it as an agent for my own pleasure, entertainment and security?

I don’t know that I will find an answer for the first other than blind social conditioning, and maybe that is the answer to the second too, for if you don’t stop and look into the eyes of your next meal then the question is unlikely to arise. Having said that, experience and recent reading confirms that making dietary choices is a luxury I should be grateful for. I can afford not to buy processed or fast food and to instead choose fresh and whole ingredients, and I have the time (mostly) and know-how to be able to cook. As for the third, I suspect I am guilty of exploitation, but hopefully not harm.

keen wah

quinoa plant and seedsIt’s still the season for porridgy breakfasts despite the daffodils beginning to break rank and outshine the snowdrops. I’ve discovered that quinoa makes a tasty alternative to oats and I make up a batch of several servings to keep in the fridge.

Quinoa is a seed that cooks like a grain. It became a headline food just a few years ago because of its high nutritional content: calcium, iron, fibre, essential fatty acids, vitamin E and several B vitamins. Importantly, it also contains a complete protein i.e. one that contains all nine essential amino acids, those that cannot be made by the body,. One serving provides about 8g of the RDA 45-53g. Even NASA scientists regard it highly enough to recommend it be included in long term human space missions.

Despite its clear health benefits and increased demand pushing up market prices, quinoa is still a niche crop outside of South America. Consumers like me (and it’s not just vegans who have been hoovering up supplies) have to weigh up every 1kg bag with the social and environmental issues that have stacked up in the local communities where this staple subsistence crop has turned into a global commodity. Fortunately there is now a variety that can thrive in the UK, but not so fortunately the license-owning farmer sold the last crop in its entirety to a fast food chain. Let’s hope he can recruit more growers and quinoa eating in the UK can become guilt-free.

 

 

Image Sourece: Google search results